Anatomy of a Perfect Message: The Letter to Larry Nassar that Broke My Heart

I’ve followed the Larry Nassar case closely this week, and I swear I have a sore neck I’ve been shaking my head so hard. I’m not naïve enough to say, “I can’t believe it,” though it is unbelievable. Nor am I naïve enough, sadly, to think that something like this couldn’t happen. What floored me about the entire horror show was that there were women involved in this massive cover up. That was utterly baffling to me, and I can only hope that Nassar won’t be the only person to go to jail behind this tragedy.

I couldn’t bear to watch more than a few of the individual testimonies from Nassar’s victims. But I did read Rachel Denhollander’s letter. She was the first to publicly accuse him of sexual abuse. She was also the last to speak at his sentencing, and the letter she shared with Judge Rosemarie Aquilina – I thought it was a masterpiece.

It wasn’t just the writing, though that was moving as well as technically impressive; she held my attention captive from beginning to end. Denhollander employed several writing and message delivery/media tactics that elevated her letter from a plea for justice to a stake through the heart for Nassar and the entire MSU organization.

She understood her audience. Denhollander knew she was talking to the judge during a sentencing hearing, so she spoke to her in her language, referencing the criminal justice system and using jargon specific to judicial proceedings. She also asked clearly for something within the scope of what was possible – the maximum sentence.

She did a continual 360. No matter what point she was trying to make, Denhollander never let her audience forget that Nassar was a habitual, determined and dangerously manipulative predator. She proved over and over that the MSU and USAG organizations had failed to protect the young girls and women in their care, that their efforts to deny, refute and rebuff the truth over several decades were systemic.

She drove those messages home from at least a dozen different angles, and when she spoke to Nassar directly I think she gave a little bit of strength to every girl and woman who has been in a similar situation. There’s power in never letting a message get lost, in creating that narrative circle that flows from beginning, to middle, to end and never once loses sight of the key message. When it’s done right the creator and the audience both feel it.

She asked questions and made repetition her friend. It was the perfect way to emphasize the wretchedness of her tale. By asking over and over in slightly different ways how much is a little girl worth? How much is a young woman worth? Denhollander made us think critically about the answers. When she asked repeatedly “was it the right way or the wrong way to handle a report of sexual assault on MSU campus?” my anger built like a wave at the willful and destructive negligence the MSU and USAG organizations perpetrated against these young girls. I wanted to know – I want to know – why? What did they have to gain by protecting these predators?

She made us feel empathy and emotion. Denhollander spared no detail as she recounted her personal tale of degradation and abuse. But she didn’t set herself apart from Nassar’s other victims. They were all part of the same disgusting story that dragged through the years, gobbling up victims like an ogre beneath a bridge. If the ogre imagery doesn’t gel, try a corrupt depot sitting on a makeshift throne waiting for sacrifices to be walked to his altar – or in this case to his medical exam room.

Denhollander used the victims and the criminals’ full names, and she described different scenarios in a matter of fact way that was all the more horrible for its clinical efficiency. She shared research, referenced testimonials she’d gathered from attorneys, police officials, physical therapists, and for me this recitation of facts only made the emotional pull of what she was saying that much greater.

She made it personal. When she relayed how she empathized with the young girls coming up behind her in gymnastics, enough to work with them as a coach, Denhollander was able to connect with her audience in the courtroom – her ovation was the result – and with a huge external audience as well. I know I am not the only one moved by her testimony.

Denhollander brought the story around to her own little girls, to her husband as she took us through the impact Nassar’s abuse had on different stages of her life. She recounted loss, embarrassment, fear, humiliation, and I swear I felt a pang with each revelation. It was like she was layering the impact, and as it grew thicker and more dense, it became more and more gross.

The letter was a genuine masterpiece.

I hope the legal sanctions aren’t over in this case. I hope they are severe and lasting. I think Denhollander would agree with me that she, that all of those girls, deserve nothing less.

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